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Onyx reviews: Wake of the Perdido
Star by Gene Hackman & Daniel Lenihan
Actor Gene Hackman and his neighbor, underwater archaeologist Daniel Lenihan,
have written "a novel of shipwrecks, pirates and the sea." Unlike many
novels that have the names of celebrities attached to them, this book is not the
work of ghostwriters. What is found on these pages, warts and all, is their own
The story starts in Salem, Massachusetts in 1805. Jack O'Reilly and his
parents board the sea-worn ship Perdido Star, bound for Cuba. A series of
personal misfortunes has driven the O'Reilly family back to Jack's mother's
native land to reclaim her legacy and start a new life. Shortly after they
arrive, an act of treachery forces Jack to take refuge back on the Perdido Star,
barely escaping with his life. His parents are not so fortunate. Jack vows to
himself that he will return to Cuba and avenge his parents, reclaiming his
The Perdido sets out south, bound for O'taheiti in the Pacific. Her motley
crew is led by a delusion captain. If not for the skill of the first mate,
Quince, the ship and crew would have perished on the harrowing trek around Cape
Horn. Their good fortune does not last, however. The Perdido sinks on a reef in
a storm near the east Pacific island of Belaur.
The survivors are stranded on Belaur for over a year, earning the trust of
the natives of the region. While salvaging valuables from the Perdido, the
crewmen invent an early form of deep diving, using makeshift diving bells as an
underwater air supply to extend their bottom time. Diving is one of Lenihan's
fields of expertise, and the evolution of their primitive techniques, along with
the unexpected and unexplained side effects (air embolisms and the bends, for
example) is described in intricate detail.
After a year and a half, the crew escape the island on a hybrid craft of
their own devising and complete the circumnavigation of the globe that brings
Jack to his destiny in Cuba. Along the way, the legend of Black Jack O'Reilly,
fearsome pirate, spreads, much to his chagrin. The boy has matured from the raw
youth who first boarded the Perdido, and the legend is useful during
confrontations with aggressive trading ships.
While the linear plot hints at an exciting adventure, reminiscent of Treasure
Island or Moby Dick, the reality is that Wake of the Perdido Star
has its moments, but is, at best, a moderately good first effort by a pair of
aspiring writers. There are some memorable characters in the novel, but they
lack much depth and are mostly caricatures. One of the book's less trustworthy
characters, for example, is transparently named Cheatum. Crewmen are invented on
the spot for the sole purpose of being dispatched a few paragraphs later.
Character motivation is difficult to understand. Jack's single-minded
determination to avenge his parents is classical, but his dogged fidelity to a
woman whom he met on the street the day he boarded the Perdido is mystifying.
Unimportant events are sometimes described in excessive detail while some of
the more crucial confrontations and crises are rushed out in vague and often
confusing passages. The dialog alternates between period diction and
contemporary idiom, sometimes within a single conversation. It's not clear to
what degree these inconsistencies are the result of differing styles of the two
It is comforting to know that the two authors have not quit their day jobs.
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